The Open Door: In Belarus, A Volunteer Reflects on Service and Community

As a JDC volunteer, Sergey Ignatiev embodies JDC's longstanding commitment to compassionate service. In this reflection, Sergey discusses the meaning of volunteerism, and how JDC has changed his life.

By Sergey Ignatiev - JDC Volunteer | April 27, 2021

Sergey Ignatiev, left, delivers food to an elderly client in Vitebsk, Belarus.

With a mask on his face and gloves on his hands, Sergey Ignatiev delivers essential items to elderly Jews in Vitebsk, Belarus. As a JDC volunteer selected as Vitebsk Region’s “Best Volunteer of 2020,” Sergey embodies JDC’s longstanding commitment to compassionate service. Here, he reflects on the meaning of volunteerism, and how JDC changed his life. 

It all started with COVID-19. The pandemic threw people into crisis, most of all the elderly. Thankfully, JDC never stopped delivering food, homecare, and social support; they didn’t skip a beat when the elderly needed them most

That’s why I began volunteering with JDC in Vitebsk, Belarus. Each day, I talk to people I’ve never met before. It’s strange that the pandemic has catapulted me into the world, when for many it has locked them inside. Through JDC, I’ve been crossing that threshold each day, one knock at a time.

Sergey delivering food and other essentials in Vitebsk

I never used to be social. I’m still a rookie volunteer, and before COVID-19, I lacked confidence. I couldn’t communicate as well as I do now. Volunteering has forced me to open up and speak, even when I’m uncomfortable. My experiences have changed me, and I’m never going back

In the beginning, I was alone. It was the early months of the pandemic, and all of us were worried, insecure, confused; we watched and waited as the world froze. Alone, I browsed through social media. I saw people post stories about delivering food and medicine to the elderly. I admired them for their generosity. But what could I do? Behind closed doors, I was safe. Safe, but restless. I had to open my door, leave home, and serve.

Before long, my chance came. A friend told me the Jewish community was looking for volunteers. There was a local center that delivered essential services to Jewish seniors. Hesed, it was called. The very next day, I phoned the coordinator, and in less than a week, I was assigned my first task: delivering food and medicine to the elderly.

Each day, I slipped on a mask and gloves and left my house. I went to the grocery story and selected food they might like: bread, butter, yogurt. Then I’d haul the bulky bags of food up flights of stairs and stand at the person’s door.

The hardest part was knocking. It’s scary. There’s no formula for meeting a stranger. I’d just take a deep breath and go for it. I had to think on my feet. What if the doorbell was broken? What if they were hard of hearing? I’d have to figure it out. Without me, they wouldn’t get the supplies they needed to survive

Community service flings you into the world. It requires you to be focused, responsible, and caring.

Community service flings you into the world. It requires you to be focused, responsible, and caring. And If you aren’t those things, you become them. You have to imagine yourself into the person’s life, this person who’s standing there in the doorway, this person who hasn’t seen their family and friends in months and who’s dying to talk to someone, anyone

So what do you? You walk that extra mile, you fix the things you can. You can’t befriend everyone. But you treat each person as a friend. How you serve is just as important as what you serve.

As time passed, I realized that the elderly needed much more than food and medicine. Before COVID-19, they were lonely enough. But the pandemic severed their social ties with a swift, clean cut. In quarantine, they weren’t just lonely. They were stressed, frustrated, and afraid.

Sergey purchasing food for his clients

I realized I could help change this. As an IT technician, I provide tech support for a living, and so I began to teach them how to use computers, the internet, and cell phones. I wanted them not just to use these devices, but use them to reconnect with family, friends, and their Jewish community.

One day we will all grow old. Mere decades sit between me and the people I was to whom I was delivering supplies. The question is: How do we want to live those years?

A catastrophe like a pandemic can harden hearts and shut minds. Some people develop a thick skin. They can’t share or listen or smile at strangers. But some of us knock on doors and extend our hands. We dedicate ourselves to something larger. This is the greatest privilege.

When I delivered food and medicine, I delivered a piece of myself, too: a smile and a kind word. In return, I gained the love and trust of the elerly Jewish community. Now, they are family to me. 

JDC did this. Without them, I never would have left my house and delivered my first meal. I never would have overcome my shyness. I never would have knocked, and their doors never would have opened.

Thanks to JDC, they did.

Sergey Ignatiev is a JDC volunteer in Vitebsk, Belarus. He provides IT support to elderly clients and distributes food, medicine, and other essentials.

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